‘ANIMAL FARM’ RECOMMENDED When: Through Nov. 9 Where: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted Tickets: $20 Info: (312) 335-1650; www.steppenwolf.org Run time: 90 minutes with no intermission
We know all too well how most revolutions end these days. In fact, in recent years we’ve all had a front-row seat observing the phenomenon and all its depressing predictability and whiplash-inducing emotions.
Invariably such events begin when the level of oppression becomes intolerable and a burst of action and optimism takes on a life of its own. There is the overthrow of a much-hated regime, followed by a brief period of elation and high hopes. But things quickly begin to sour, with a growing sense that everything old is new again, and that it’s just a different set of oppressors who have risen to power.
George Orwell saw all this in the wake of World War II, when he penned his most famous novel, “Animal Farm,” the engagingly anthropomorphic allegory (he called it a “fairy tale”) that cleverly chronicled the Russian Revolution of 1917, the initial changes implemented by Lenin and the brutal dictatorship of Stalin. Of course the work has an evergreen quality: Totalitarian regimes tend to draw from more or less the same play book.
Given recent events, it makes perfect sense that Orwell’s classic — a work that sparks discussion about history, politics, individual action, social equality and much more — was chosen as the season’s first Steppenwolf for Young Adults production, which is designed for school groups, but draws a wider public at weekend performances. And this 90-minute version, adapted by Althos Low (an artistic collective), and directed by Hallie Gordon, is sure to generate such talk. Yet watching it I couldn’t quite dispel memories of the glorious musical version produced by Bailiwick many years ago — one that brought the animals to life in such a vivid way that I still see and hear them in my imagination.
The Steppenwolf version, which lacks a certain dynamic variety, begins with the figure of Orwell (Will Allan, the spitting image of the writer, who later transforms into Benjamin, the cynical donkey). Seated at his typewriter, he talks of how penning a story might be a better way to protest than going into battle. And he starts to spin the story of Mr. Jones, the owner of Manor Farm — a man who drinks too much and treats his animals with great cruelty, to the point where Old Major (Jamine Bracey), a boar, suggests they stage a revolt.
Upon Major’s death, two pigs, Snowball (Sean Parris) and Napoleon (Blake Montgomery) — the shrewdist and smartest of the creatures — lead the overthrow of Jones, rename their community “Animal Farm,” and adopt the Seven Commandments of Animalism. The most essential of these is, “All animals are equal,” though this, along with many other principle, is soon appended to read “but some are more equal than others.”
A literacy program is introduced, food is initially plentiful, and things seem to be going well. But push soon comes to shove, the two pigs engage in a power struggle, and Napoleon triumphs thanks to his specially trained police dogs. Then, his plans to build a giant windmill wreak havoc on the animals, and things go from bad to worse.
Boxer, the workhorse (Matt Kahler is ideal), never complains and just promises to “work harder,” ultimately driving himself to death, while Mollie (Dana Murphy), a white mare who craves sugar and ribbons, is the feckless sellout. Muriel, the goat (Mildred Marie Langford), is the brainy reader, yet this does her little good. Maggie, the hen (Lucy Carapetyan), tries to protest her eggs. And Squealer, the pig (Amelia Hefferon), is a deft propagandist. Moses, the raven (a sharp-edged Lance Newton), spins fantasies of the afterlife, which he calls “Sugarcandy Mountain.”
Izumi Inaba’s costumes — ingenious hand-knitted hoods that quickly transform the uniformed proletariat into animals — are most winning and imaginative, while Brian Sidney Bembridge’s office and barnyard set are handsome. But the animals never completely distinguish themselves, or grab either our hearts or our resentment. And hanging Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” painting on a wall feels like a warped and rather heavy-handed commentary on one of the world’s more successful revolutions (ours).